The show woman with sawdust in her blood

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Marrion Fossett with her nine month old grand-niece Freya at the Cleeve's site. Photo: Paul Mullins

“YOU can shake the sawdust from your feet but you never shake it from your blood.”

So says ringmaster Marion Fossett, the woman who fronts the world’s longest continuously touring circus.

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When other circuses stopped performing during the two world wars, Fossett’s adopted the “show must go on” motto.

Sitting in the Big Top, even without the lights and the music, there is something haunting about it.

There are no musicians but the notes are whispered on the breeze coming through the tent flaps.

Circus matriarch Herta Fossett

No performers on this quiet afternoon yet the shadows of shows past and shows to come flit about in the heights of the canvas. Out of the corner of an eye, trapeze swings and a bespangled body soars through the air. The circus has a magic all of its own.

Marion is one of four generations of Fossetts currently on tour with the family circus including her grand-niece, nine-month old baby Freya.

“Ireland recognises circus as a legitimate art form, the first country in Europe to do so,” says Marion. “But unfortunately, we don’t get any funding. We have to make the show pay for itself.”

And there are significant costs to be covered before anyone makes any money. The price of diesel is unpredictable and a big part of the cost of keeping a show on the road, not to mention the spiralling costs of public liability insurance.

“Just as an example, it costs us €150 every time we go through a toll because we have so many trucks and vans and we might go through two or three tolls going to any part of the country.”

“It’s currently the only live entertainment where you can bring every member of the family, young and old and they will all be entertained.”

This week, Fossett’s are based at the former Cleeves site on O’Callaghan Strand, a location organised by Limerick City and County Council.

“We have a fantastic relationship with Limerick, the council and the audiences,” the Ringmaster who was Grand Marshal in last year’s St Patrick’s Day Parade in the city says.

“We’ve been coming to Limerick for at least 85 years and maybe even longer. I remember when we came and set up on the Fair Green but there are no Fair Greens anymore. It’s getting harder to find somewhere to perform so we’re very grateful to Limerick City and County Council for this fantastic site.”

“My father used always say ‘don’t worry – Limerick is a Fossett’s town’ and he was right. I was so honoured to be asked to be Grand Marshall for the 250 year anniversary of circus.”

Fossett’s is a family-run circus and this time around, nearly 40 family members are involved in the tour, which is on the road from St Patrick’s Day until October.

Children, however, have to stay behind for schooling a fact Marion would like to see change.

“In other countries, the government provides a teacher for circus children but not here. Children should be on tour – that’s when you learn your skills, when you’re a child.”

There has been a circus clown in every generation of the family.

This is the show with everything, including romance.

In 1952, Teddy Fossett and his brothers, Johnny and Bobby were the youngest circus owners in the world, having taken over the running of the show after their parents’ deaths when they were just in their 20s.

A young trapeze artiste, Herta Bhorsky, joined Fossett’s to top the bill and it was love at first sight between her and Teddy. They married within the year.

It’s a scenario that’s been repeated again and again in the history of the circus.

‘You’re touring with people for almost a year at a time so you really get to know them. And the circus life is one of a kind although people do marry into it successfully. One of our tightrope walkers was a wages clerk before she married into the circus.”

Marion herself has had a career outside the circus, a professional singer and one of the three-girl group, Sheba, who represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1981.

But her return to the ring gives truth to the saying about sawdust in the blood.

On the thorny subject of exotic animals and the circus, Marion accepts that Ireland has a total ban on such acts now.

“But it makes me angry when I hear people say that circus people mistreat the animals. There may be a tiny minority who are cruel but we always loved our animals and took very great care of them.”

The circus has no exotic animals in their show at present nor for many years as it was circus policy to bring in acts who had their own animals.

But there were some colourful moments when the four-legged performers were around.

“I remember one year, we were set up on the fair green and a lady whose garden backed on to the green had an amazing show of roses. Our camels ate them all. She was livid.”

In the quiet of the big top, the 500 seats are empty for now.

But soon, the lights will go up, the punters will stream in and the sawdust ring will come alive.

For the Fossetts, there is no feeling quite like it. And no business like show business.